Tyler Zeller has been asserting himself more as a leader
January 11, 2009, arguably the best UNC basketball team ever, took a loss to a decent but unremarkable Wake Forest team. They would finish out the rest of the regular season undefeated, and then go on to win the NCAA Tournament in emphatic fashion, winning each game by double digits.
Fast forward three years to January 14, 2012 and UNC took a punch in the nose from a decent, but unremarkable Florida State team.
The loss in Wake Forest was not important in terms of the team's record, nor was the loss to Florida State. They were indicative of the troubles that could befall a very good team, but in the long run, what it did for the 2009 team and what it appears to be doing for the 2012 team, is give them that extra spurt of energy to finish the rest of the season in style.
It's still too early to tell if that's going to continue through March and April for the current Tar Heel team, but all signs point to that punch in the nose being exactly what UNC needed; a flash of inspiration. The Heels have cruised to victory in the following set of games and, even with occasional poor play, there has been no doubt about the results, as they have been playing some of their best overall basketball of the season.
The 83-74 victory over Maryland was tough, but with 10 minutes left in the game, it was clear that Tyler Zeller and company were not going to be giving away the result. The first 30 minutes may have been a dog fight and UNC were being muscled around and losing loose balls, but anyone watching the game knew that Maryland was going to tire.
Despite the struggles in the first 25 to 30 minutes of the game against the frenzied Terrapins, North Carolina played with a pleasantly surprising composure and efficiency and, even though their shooting percentages weren't great, it was enough to ensure victory.
One can't help but wonder though, if they would have been able to keep the score close enough to put the game away prior to taking the January 14 thumping to Florida State.
After taking a blowout loss, a team will either be demoralized and struggle over the next series of games, or benefit from it and toughen up. Roy Williams' squad clearly took the latter route, playing with an intensity that is allowing them beat up on their opponents in bruising games and fast games. One of the positives is that Tyler Zeller has strengthened his leadership, becoming more of an emotional leader on the court. There have been too many times in the past where his hesitance to assert himself emotionally on the floor left the Heels without a clear leader.
Zeller is stepping up at the right time, posting career highs in rebounds twice since the loss to Florida State and just generally showing much greater intensity. He has scored 17-plus points in four straight games, the first time all season with such a streak, and two of his five 20-plus point games have come since the loss.
With Zeller finding himself not just performing well in an important role, but excelling in it, the Heels are looking more and more powerful.
In addition to Zeller turning into more of a leader on the floor, the win over Maryland showed the full potential of what UNC can do on the interior. Already leading the nation in rebounding, they pulled down another 44, with 18 of them being on the offensive glass. The additional opportunities that those offensive rebounds afforded saved the game when the initial shots simply were not dropping through the middle of the game.
The length provided by Zeller and John Henson simply can not be raved about enough, but the most impressive part of the rebounding situation was Reggie Bullock crashing the boards and getting second chance opportunities.
While the loss to Florida State was not exactly inconsequential, since the Seminoles now hold a tie breaker advantage over UNC, it was not a devastating loss that put a funk on the rest of the season. The resilient Heels have bounced back and are better than ever, playing with passion.
Wednesday's game against Duke will be telling, though; once again the two blue bloods of the ACC will meet when both are ranked in the Top 10. UNC looks to have the advantage going into it with the way they have been playing, but it will be the best test to see if getting punched in the nose started an unquenchable fire or just gave an adrenaline rush.
Now, if only getting punched in the nose would help their free throw shooting, which ranks 273rd in the nation, giving up an average of nine points a night from the charity stripe.